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Neil Crespin, Chairman, mcm creative group

Neil Crespin

In a climate of public antipathy and distrust, morale in the financial services sector is at an all-time low. Opinion is firmly weighted against the banks, which stand accused of many wrongdoings, ranging from tax avoidance and money laundering to mis-selling and market rigging.

During the 2008 financial crisis, RBS, the UK’s third largest bank, had to be bailed out using tax payers’ money. This ‘moral hazard’, where bank losses are nationalised while profits are kept private, is the root cause of much anger towards bankers. Yet they continue to hoard money and pay chief executives huge bonuses.

In his report published in February, Lord Young said if organisations put £10bn of the cash they hold back into the UK economy, business investment would return to pre-crisis levels. No wonder the British public is far from ready to trust the banking sector again.

With this in mind, it is vital that marketers don’t attempt to rush the healing process. Credibility is quickly damaged but takes far longer to repair. If marketers push too soon, they risk undermining their own efforts and losing any trust they are able to claw back. Restoring confidence slowly is the only way marketers can improve perceptions, but where should they start? In my view, it has to happen from the inside out.

Today marketing in the banking sector needs to be more grounded and sympathetic, not brash and overly assertive. Nor should it try to curry favour with customers through trivial offers. At best this just leaves people feeling indifferent. To reach and engage disenfranchised customers, banks have to really listen and genuinely change their behaviour.

An example of this is Lloyds Bank. Another high street institution that was close to collapse, Lloyds split from TSB two years ago and took the opportunity to build a better relationship with its customers. It replaced imposing teller windows with open plan counters in its branches, introduced new accounts with better benefits and adopted a more friendly, helpful approach.

Clearly Lloyds is very aware it has to go the extra mile to win back its customers’ confidence. However, for changes like this to be effective over the long term, I believe they must be accompanied by cultural change within the organisation.

We work with our banking clients to help them bring their customers’ complaints, concerns and preferences sensitively to the attention of browbeaten and disillusioned employees in an empathetic way. People assume that banks are callous and unrepentant, but we’ve seen first-hand just how affected banking staff have been.

We’ve used live interviews, video, animation and infographics to bring staff closer to customers and highlight what customers value. It’s important to get the customer’s view across in a way that conveys a balanced cross section of opinion. There’s no point in having customers beat you with a big stick. Equally, it doesn’t help to have only satisfied customers singing your praises, because it’s not representative of overall sentiment.

We’ve found that giving ordinary people the opportunity to air their views and for these views to be heard by all banking employees can make a difference to both staff morale and customer confidence. Having customers speak at a live event has by far the biggest impact but is difficult to do for many reasons. You can replicate the experience on video to an extent but you lose a certain level of acceptance, because staff know it’s been edited.

We’ve also worked with senior leadership teams to find effective ways to cascade through the organisation the importance of making the customer experience as positive as it can be. It easy to forget that having a banking licence is a privilege, in return for which the bank is expected to serve the public.

As a way of returning to the essential values that banks stand for and remind staff of their contribution to society beyond making money, we tone down branding at the internal events we design and build for clients, and never use it on public signage. This is partly for privacy, but also to keep focused on what’s important.

There’s perhaps too much emphasis on brands in marketing today, and at the moment for banks this is not helpful. We need staff to reconnect with why they do what they do, and to remember that everything starts with the customer.

As employees begin to appreciate where customers are coming from, and if customers start to feel their bank cares about them, I’m hopeful that over time the damage caused by the financial crisis will repair itself to create a better, more approachable banking sector.

That’s not to underestimate the problem. There is no short-term fix for this situation. Understandably the British public are resentful and suspicious of the banking sector, and it’s questionable whether banks will ever rebuild their reputation entirely. But if marketers take a sensible and sensitive view, and banks demonstrate they are willing to change, there’s every chance the sector can win back the public’s trust.

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